As a Chicago baseball fan in 2016, one may find him or herself as harried as a short-order cook at noon time. If the first two months of the season are any indication of how it will play out, we all could be whoopin’ and hollerin’ in September. And, maybe beyond.
Having both the Cubs and White Sox in first place for the better part of the first trimester (sometimes it DOES feel like we’re giving birth here) made pulling out the sports section a welcome and giddy anticipation every morning. A quick peek at the MLB At Bat app was always a reassuring visit.
While the Sox have recently been fighting to get back to the top of the AL Central, the Cubs have been challenging long-held records by sitting 15 to 20+ games for over .500 already. Both are positioned to occupy post-season berths. How did they get to this point?
No One Expects the Winter Acquisitions!
The efforts of Cubs’ Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer over the last few years are no secret. Crafty drafting and deft trades have stocked the Cub board – without any help from an old mother. Less recognized are the wheeling and dealing moves of Ken Williams and Rick Hahn at 35th and Shields (or, thereabouts.)
Never mind the LaRoche debacle. It was poorly handled from start to finish, but really had no impact on the field. More important was convincing Reds’ third baseman Todd Frazier that Lake Michigan water was better for his health than the Ohio River. At this point, he provides much-needed stability at the hot corner and he’s at the top of the AL home run count. INF Brett Lawrie was also a pleasant surprise.
The pitching staff was bolstered with the signing of Mat Latos – one of those “off the scrap heap” grabs that had as much chance of failing as succeeding. After a hot start, he stumbled badly and was designated for assignment (also necessary was the divestment of starter John Danks.)
To support the hurlers, catchers Dionner Navarro and Alex Avila – in platoon form – were a move up from Tyler Flowers. In the infield, veteran shortstop Jimmy Rollins was expected to hold down the fort until rookie Tim Anderson ripens.
On the Northside of town, the Cubs clearly went “all in” with the additions of super-utility player Ben Zobrist, starting pitcher John Lackey, and Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward. The surprise resigning of CF Dexter Fowler has – so far – returned silly great results.
So, What’s Up (To Now,) Doc?
In the last few weeks, a seven-game losing streak dropped the Sox from the top spot. They’ve done pretty well on the road (over .500,) but barely broken even at home. Adam Eaton has been a plus-presence in RF, but has seen his batting average plummet from .312 in mid-May to the current level of the mid-.260s.
And what about Abreu? The Cuban and former Rookie of the Year has been hitting forty to fifty points below his short-but-steady career average of .294. The power and run-production has been AWOL. The recent addition of former AL MVP Justin Morneau smells of desperate moves calling for desperate measures – but it’s just too early for that.
After Chris Sale and Jose Quintana, the starting pitching has been pretty suspect. With that, the front office proved its commitment to winning now by recently trading for veteran starter James Shields (who didn’t impress with his first start – almost 80 pitches in just two innings? Oh, my achin’ arm.) But the bullpen has also been shaky. And, overall, the offensive run production has dropped nearly half a run per game, while runs allowed has gone up by a run and a half per game.
And, despite the raging of many Chicagoans, dumping manager Robin Ventura is not the solution. He can only direct the people he puts on the field. But, if Williams and Hahn are smart, maybe they should chat with those in the clubhouse who have a better feel for the team’s pulse and respiration. It could be better than CPR.
How Deep is Your Glove?
A large portion of the Cubs’ success so far has been their depth, in all areas. Phenom hitter LF/C Kyle Schwarber was expected to continue his assault on poor, unsuspecting baseballs in 2016. He was not expected to blow out his knee in the first week of the season. But, instead of stumbling at the gate, the team surged to (and so far, has kept) the best record in baseball.
When Schwarber’s replacement in left – Jorge Soler – came up with a hammy, the team dipped into the AAA bucket and pulled out much-anticipated Albert Almora. He quickly impressed in his first start with a bullet throw to the plate, gunning down a Phillies runner trying to score. The Cubs doubled down by reacquiring multi-position player (and former NL Rookie of the Year) Chris Coghlan. An integral part to the team’s success in 2015, he’s just one more angle to the Cubs’ depth.
Starting pitchers – pretty much one to five – have been crippling for opposing hitters. The bullpen has not coughed up leads as they were prone to do a few years ago. There is no weak spot in the hitting lineup (even the pitchers have driven in nearly 20 runs,) and the power is also well spread out.
Credit field manager Joe Maddon for respecting his players as being adult and responsible (perhaps a surprise, given six of the regular offensive starters are only 26 or under.) Yet, Joe understands the value of having fun playing the game, while motivating and cultivating a positive chemistry within the team.
In the end, it’s a long season. A lot can happen for both Chicago teams. I, for one, would simply plotz to see both teams going head-to-head in the Fall Classic. Seeing either one make it would be great consolation.
In the meantime, to quote Harry Carey – a man who made the broadcast call from both sides of town – “You can’t beat fun at the old ball park!”
Tom DeMichael is an author and lifelog fan of baseball. He’s seen major and minor league games all over the country. He is a member of SABR (the Society for American Baseball Research) and once legged a triple into a double during a Cubs fantasy camp game at Wrigley Field.
His latest book for Hal Leonard Publishing – Baseball FAQ – can be found in paperback and Kindle editions at http://amzn.com/1617136069